Section 2: The Distinctive Touch

Would It Be Wood?

Wooden Cabinet


Success Indicator: You will be able to select quality furniture.
Life Skills Practiced: Critical thinking and wise use of resources.
Project Skills Practiced: Comparing furniture construction and purchasing quality.

Helper's Guide to Section 2: The Distinctive Touch


Furniture Materials and Characteristics


Woods: Solid, Plywood, Veneer, Hardboard, Particle Board, Composite wood, etc.

  • Most furniture contains some plywood. Plywood is strong and resists splitting and warping. It is made of layers of wood glued together with the wood grain at right angles.
  • Plywood is often faced with a thin veneer ranging from 1/60th inch to 1/10th inch. Thicker veneers with quality finishes will wear better over time. Refinishing and repairs will depend on the thickness of the veneer. Veneers help save rare woods and wood in general as less wood is used for the surface appearance.
  • Solid wood can be refinished many times if it is scratched or damaged. Depending on the wood, it is generally more expensive. Many older pieces were solid wood or solid with veneer and can be refinished for quality wood and structure. Chips, scratches and gouges expose like wood and can be covered more easily.
  • Hardboard is made of wood fibers sealed together with adhesives, steam and pressure. It comes in 1/16" to 3/4" thickness and is often used in unseen parts of furniture such as back panels and bottoms, drawer dividers and bottoms.
  • Particle board is made of wood particles and adhesive. It is formed by flat-pressing, extrusion or mat-forming. Thickness varies from 1/8" to 2" and comes in several sizes. Particle board has no grain so doesn't split easily. It is often used in place of plywood and then finished with veneers or laminates. It can be painted or enameled.
Paper/Cardboard Paper is often used as a base for photographed wood and attached as a film over less expensive materials to look like wood. A thin layer or film such as "plastic" or other clean finish covers the paper. Unless covered with a very protective surface, it is not as durable to heat, moisture, heavy use, scratches and is not easily cleaned. It cannot be refinished or repaired easily. Often used in low-cost furniture.
Metals: Steel, aluminum, copper, brass, bronze, iron Metals can be strong depending on their weight and construction methods. Stainless steel resists rusting. Other metals may need coatings or finishes to prevent rusting or oxidation. Coatings will affect the look and rust resistance and durability of surface. Usually easy to care for. Some copper and brass coatings are very thin and care wear away. Iron needs a protective coating to prevent rust.
Glass Tempered or heavier glass is stronger than lightweight glass. Look for 1/2" thickness or more. Easy to clean. Glass can be fragile and break.
Plastics: Plastics vary in ability to withstand heat, scratching, chemicals and sun. Plastics are generally strong but lightweight. Most plastics are made from oil, but some are now made from soybeans and other materials. Some plastics scratch easily and are affected by chemicals or cleaners. Plastics are often made to look like other materials like carved wood. The finish will sometimes wear away, revealing the plastic base underneath.
Bamboo and Rattan Strong materials for their weight. Resists water. Good construction is important. Check the joint areas.
Rattan is strong and durable. Rattan poles should be smooth and consistent in size. High grade rattan is light in color and free of dark blemishes.
Bamboo resembles rattan but is hollow, not solid. Joints in bamboo tend to bulge and are dark. Bamboo is less flexible, which limits its bending capability.
Wicker is a construction technique rather than a material. Wicker furniture can be made of rattan, reed, willow, bamboo, flexible twigs or branches.
Marble Marble is sometimes used for furniture surfaces or tops. It can break - especially along the veining lines. Travertine marble is very porous and is usually filled and polished before it is used for furniture. Marble can stain from acids (sodas, drinks etc.), oils, metals, etc. Over time, the marble surface may scratch and look worn if the sealer wears away.

Printable Version of this Chart (887 PDF)

Learn more about the different types of wood at Demesne: Definitions for Wood Furniture
Learn some tips for selecting quality furniture with G95-1247 Selecting Case Goods–Woods (110 KB PDF)

Find some information for selecting quality wood furniture by watching Selecting Wood Case Furniture and Selecting Upholstered Furniture.

Helper's Guide to Section 2: The Distinctive Touch